Why do we write?

It's January, it's about -100 degrees outside in Toronto, and the kids are back in school. The house is quiet. As I type this, the printer to my right is spewing page upon page of editorial notes for my second novel, the still-untitled sequel to Still Mine. So it begins, part two of the epic journey that is writing a novel. The hands-dirty editing part. My editor has read it. She has her thoughts. We are both excited. But mixed in with my excitement is always that huge pile of reticence, of self-doubt. Writing is a tough and lonely gig. It often leaves me raw, disconcerted. Remind me... why do I do it?

Cue the serendipity: This morning, as I was browsing old files on my computer in search of a long-lost letter, I came across something I wrote fourteen years ago while in teacher's college at the University of Toronto. I was studying to be an English teacher, and as part of this study, our incredible professor had us reflect on our own lives as readers, writers, talkers. In 2003, I was at the very beginning of two career paths - teacher and writer - paths that would weave over and under each other for the decade to follow, as I imagine they will continue to do. Funny how what I wrote back then about my life as a writer rings incredibly true to me today; it acts as a reminder of why I do this, of how lucky I am to be doing it. Funny too that I'd come across it right when I needed to read something of the very sort. I'll share it with you in case it might offer you something too. 

My Life as a Writer (2003)

Words are everything to me. They can reduce me to tears in any form: a letter, a poem, a novel, a story, an essay, a song. I believe I could fall in love in the balance of a single sentence. I probably have already, and I likely will again.

When I was young, I kept a journal, but mostly I wrote letters. I had pen pals, and I wrote to faraway relatives and friends. At summer camp, I wrote at least one letter a day. I have a large box with every letter or note I’ve ever received tucked inside. Collectively, these letters build a remarkable monument to my past. The pile also includes letters I’ve written and never sent. I’ve meditated a lot about unsent letters, about how sending them might have shifted my course. On August 9, 1999, I wrote this in my diary:

“All the letters I will never send… how much could they change my life? A letter leads to a phone call, which leads to a meeting, which leads to said things that would have stayed unsaid without the letter. I have many letters, some unfinished and some addressed and stamped, that I never sent. Do I always make the right choice? That’s a stupid question, because there’s no way to know. I’m trying more and more not to live that way, not to focus on what might have been. But unsent letters are so grey, so unknown. I can remind myself that there was probably a good reason why I didn’t send it, that at some point a clearer mind stepped in and stopped me. But then again, if the words weren’t speaking a truth deserving to be read, then why did I write them in the first place?”

Only recently have I fancied myself a writer beyond journals and letters. Last summer, I wrote an essay about my grandmother that was published in a national newspaper. A few months later, my grandma fell ill, and I travelled to PEI to be with her when she died. Everyone I saw mentioned the essay, some even quoted entire sentences back to me as we mingled with juice and cake after the funeral. What a strange thing it is, to write about a person and a place so beloved, and then to have the words stretch out well beyond me to countless others. It was my first experience as a published writer, and my reaction was mixed. In one sense, I felt exposed, as though I’d handed over a delicate part of myself for the world to jostle. The limelight, however dim, was disconcerting to me. But in another sense, I felt happy that people had taken my point, that I’d carved a hole through which anyone could glimpse something so dear to me.

So, I plow forward, taking measures to assure that I’m writing on a regular basis. I am taking courses and cutting out small sections of each day to sit down and write. The process can be agonizing, but it can also be beautiful. And the further I go, the more I recognize that I need to be doing it.

I have told my students that writing is talking with the benefit of time. We write what we want to say, but with the chance to mull it over, to pick and choose our words at whatever pace suits us. I have spent hours on a single sentence, and written pages and pages in minutes. Writing is unconstrained by time. For that, I cherish it.

For the love of E-Books

I can admit it: When e-books first emerged on the scene, I was on the Doomsday side of things. I read all the articles and waxed to anyone who would listen about the death of the physical book, of libraries, of bookstores. The prospect felt grim. What would my shelves look like if I couldn't line them year after year with touchable, holdable books?

Fast forward a decade (or more, who's counting?) and I'll say it: I've come around. The e-book has settled in beautifully to our reading landscape. It didn't kill the physical book at all. Instead, it just added a layer for readers: The ability to transport thousands of books tucked under an arm. When I'm at home, I really paper books, but when I'm travelling I pack an e-book filled with more books than I could put in a transport truck. Sometimes, I interchange the same book in paper and e-book versions. I love the hunt that comes from searching for exactly where I last left off on either one.

In related news, the e-book version of Still Mine will be available via BookBub this Friday October 21st. BookBub is a most excellent resource for e-book enthusiasts, offering many great deals a day on bestsellers in all genres. I'll certainly be loading up my e-reader as I get ready to fly west for the Vancouver Writers' Festival

An Ode to the Second Book

My awesome ThrillerFest mug

My awesome ThrillerFest mug

Yesterday I arrived home after an incredible four days at ThrillerFest. If you are a writer and you write or like thrillers or mysteries, add ThrillerFest to your bucket list right away. Put on by the International Thriller Writers and held in downtown NYC, it's a amazing conference for aspiring, emerging and established writers full of panels, cocktail parties and other wonderful events. 

One of the great things about the International Thriller Writers organization is that they run a Debut Authors Program that provides support, mentorship and exposure to writers trying to launch their first novels. As part of ThrillerFest, the debut group was given access to established writers so that we might ask questions and pick their brains. The weekend culminated for us with the Debut Breakfast, an event where NYT bestselling author Steve Berry presented each of us to a ballroom full of writers, agents, publishers. We were writer Debutantes. It was fantastically fun.

Over the weekend, a topic often raised among debuts was that of the Second Book. The pain of writing it. In his remarks, Steve Berry called it an illness - second-book-itis. Your first book is out in the world and now you're tasked with writing the second one. But when you sit down to do it, it feels different. This time, you might have a tighter deadline. This time, you can't climb your way out of those writing blocks or fits by declaring that no one will ever read it anyway. You know the book will one day be an actual book. There are new pressures this time. And so the illness sets in, that plague of writerly self-doubt.

Today, I'm back from New York and back at my own second book. Still Mine has a sequel, as might be obvious to those who've read it. I nearly have a first draft of this second book, but it's messy. It's a strange thing to be here again, at the relative beginning. My sentences haven't been tidied up by rounds and rounds of editing. My characters need more to say and do. The plot is still wayward. I know I can fix these things, I know I have a wonderful editor to help me once I'm ready for her, but it still feels different. Like childbirth, maybe: Even though I've done it before and on some level I can anticipate it will be easier, there's this new anxiety that wasn't there last time. Because this time, I know how much it hurts. 

Hold on. Let's not get too dramatic. I was going to call this post The Second Book Blues, but I opted not to because, hey, I'm trying to be hopeful.

I have this internal game I play in all areas of my brain/life. Any time I feel anxious or stressed or or worried or (worst of all) resentful of a task ahead, another part of me steps in to remind myself of my profound good fortune that this task exists in my life at all. This works for things like motherhood or writing, but less so for things like laundry or cleaning out my car. This is the gist: Yes, it's stressful to write a book. It's hard. It takes time I don't always have. But I wrote a book and it got published and it's done well enough that they want me to write a second. And a third!!! A THIRD. I wouldn't have it any other way, so I'd better stop worrying or complaining and get to it. 

Steve Berry offered us debut authors the simple antidote: Put your head down and write. When the doubt creeps over, don't stop to gaze at it. Ignore it. Push it away by putting words on the page no matter what. Keep writing. I think he's exactly right. I'll add my mix of gratitude to that and I'll be fine. And maybe the odd glass of Pinot. Or two. 

 

The Launch of Still Mine

Last night, before we turned out the lights, my husband pointed out to me that somewhere, someone was probably reading my book. In fact, more than one person. Maybe two. Maybe ten. Maybe even one hundred. That thought kept my eyes open for a good while. The image of readers, some of whom I know and others I don't, spending their time with my characters. I imagined them getting frustrated with Clare, maybe liking her but hating her too, wondering about Malcolm, finding him inscrutable. I wondered if readers' visions of Blackmore differed from my own, how the geography of the town and the gorge were shaping up in their minds.

It's been thirteen days since the book was officially released in Canada, though it made its first appearances on shelves about ten days earlier. The past month has been a whirlwind, with the book landing in Costco, the airport kiosks, indie bookstores and other retailers big and small. It has climbed the bestseller list. There was a US deal. There were reviews, including one in the Globe and Mail and one in the Toronto Star. There was a launch party that lingered into the wee hours of the next morning. It's been quite the ride, and the overwhelming sentiment has been one of gratitude... I just can't believe how many people have taken the time to buy the book or send their good wishes or promote it to their own networks. I feel tremendously lucky.

But in the whirlwind, there have been moments of quiet too. Strange quiet. Empty nest quiet, like I can feel the distance forming between Still Mine and me. I see pictures of it out in the world and my instincts are motherly; I am happy to see it doing well, and I just want it to be loved. I just want the readers to know that I tried my best.

And I continue to try my best. I am at work on the sequel and should have a first draft relatively soon. Current hopes/plans are that the sequel will arrive on shelves at some point in 2017. I carry Clare with me in a very different way this time. I feel like I know her. After reading reviews and hearing from friends, I feel like I know with even more certainty what I want for her. Readers will eventually know more of her, and most definitely more of Malcolm. If you have an opinion on Clare (or Malcolm!), feel free to send word. I may well take it into consideration.

On that note, I'll say it one more time: Thank you. Now off I go to write.

 

 

A New Year Brings Lots of Exciting News

I recently inputed March 1, 2016 into a google feature to spare my brain the mathematics of the countdown. And here is the number: 57 Days from today, Still Mine will be in stores and online. After a long process with many stages, it feels remarkable to be so close to a day I've imagined in some form for years and years. The next few months will be about balancing my preparations with continuing to work hard on writing the second book in the series. 

I've recently had some exciting news that serves to make it all feel very real. Costco Canada announced that Still Mine will be the "Buyer's Pick" for BOTH March and April. The thought of a pile of my books 2 feet high at Costco is so overwhelmingly awesome that I might just have to book a few weekends in March to do a Costco-to-Costco-to-Costco road trip. Who's with me?

In other excellent news, some of my favourite writers on earth have written wonderful reviews/blurbs for the book that are now on the home page of my (new!) website. 

Lastly, I've joined Instagram! @amystuartwriter

Of course I'm excited about the next few months, but so many of my friends and family and colleagues, not to mention the incredible people at Simon and Schuster Canada, have rallied behind this little book and its upcoming adventures in incredible ways. All of the support and good wishes along the way have actually been pretty humbling. Above everything else, I'm grateful. 

57 days. Here we go!

 

After #NaNoWriMo: A Writer's Checklist

It's December 1st.

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#NaNoWriMo is over. Or as non-writers/sane people call it, November. You're sitting at your desk, unkempt and exhausted, a pile of papers in front of you that resembles a manuscript. You've done it! Congratulations are in order... You have a first draft!

You have a first draft. Now what? As my own book nears its publication date, I look back on the whole process from first draft to here and I wish I'd had a better sense of all the stages. And writers love lists, right? So I put together a list. I hope it helps.

The First Draft is Done: Twelve Next Steps for Writers 

1) Celebrate. Enjoy a beer or a Pinot Grigio or a chocolate milk or a big huge cake or a dance party or whatever else feels celebratory to you. Finishing a book manuscript is no small feat, especially if you wrote the bulk of it in one harried month. Pause for a while to bask in what you've accomplished, to ceremoniously cross write a book off your bucket list. Print out the manuscript and carry it around under your arm just to feel the bulk of it. Maybe throw a picture or two up on Twitter or Instagram. Caption it: Look! I wrote a book! But don't celebrate for too long, because the time will come to...

2) Take a deep breath and acknowledge that a first draft is only about 50% of the work, if that. I've written about my own lowly first drafts here and here. I once read that agents are so swamped with manuscripts pumped out during #NaNoWriMo that many have taken to closing off December submissions. Sending your NaNoWriMo draft to an agent/publisher on December 1st is sort of like signing your newborn baby up to write the SATs. Not ready! Slow down! Put your book in a drawer for a while, a few days or a week or longer. The editing process will be - should be! - arduous. Take a breather before you start. And when you feel ready, pull it out of the drawer and...

3) Read your manuscript really closely. Be cruel and be kind. Remember, this is just a first draft. Don't let sloppy writing get you down; this isn't a line edit. The first read should be about taking notes and asking bigger picture questions. Do you see your book as a thriller? What are the elements of a good thriller? Do you have them in your story? What about your characters? Are they thin? Contrived? Can you find major plot holes? Scenes that are too short/long? Scenes that could be cut without changing the story at all? Sections where the pacing is too fast or too slow? The She's Novel site has some excellent suggestions on how to proceed. Some writers may want to start their second draft on their own, others might need to...

4) Find an outside reader or two. Find someone who reads a lot, someone who can understand the limitations of the first (or second, if you've gotten that far) draft. Ask gently and humbly and be okay with people saying no, because reading an early draft is sort of like agreeing to babysit someone's child for a weekend; it's no small undertaking. Ideally, you'll find someone else with an early draft and you can exchange. #Nanowrimo local groups are a good place to look, and meetup.com also lists many writing groups by geography & genre (will I sound like a mom if I add here that you should always use your street smarts when meeting up with strangers?) If funds allow, consider hiring a professional editor to help you. In Canada? Find an editor here. Once you have a reader, you'll need to give them time to read and absorb. So...

5) Use the time between drafts well. Published writers will tell you that over the course of a book's lifetime, from first draft to book-on-shelf, there will be lots of waiting, and some of it will be agonizing. One way is to pass the time is to write other things. Use daily prompts like those Sarah Selecky tweets daily. Outline your next project. READ A TON. Read books that match your own genre, books with similar themes to yours, and take notes on what you feel works or doesn't as you read. Read books entirely unrelated to your own work. And while you're at it...

6) Engage in the marketplace. If you're not already there, join Twitter and follow writers, editors, booksellers, agents, publishers, literary magazines, book reviews, book bloggers, etc. The Write Life offers great Twitter suggestions for writers. Attend local readings or literary events. The publishing world is relatively small and supportive, and connecting with other writers can be very helpful at every stage. Also, when the time comes to put your work out there, it's a bonus for agents and publishers to see that you're already active in the publishing scene. Immerse yourself. And soon enough, the waiting will be over, your manuscript will be returned to you with feedback and you'll be forced to...

7) Accept the trials of the editing process.There are endless quotes from famous writers on the torturous editing process.  Writers must be open to it, must be humble and ready to get to work. Ignore constructive feedback at your peril. Edit with a "customer is always right" sensibility; of course, your readers may not always right, but if they are telling you that something isn't working, you'd best take a good look. Be prepared to cut passages or scenes or even characters you love simply because they don't fit. Be prepared to kill your darlings. Need some guidance? Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is one of my favourite books on the editing process, and Joanna Penn's website The Creative Penn also has lots of great tools. Push through that second draft until you've got something better than the first. Then...

8) Go back to #1 on this list and start again. Then again. My rule of thumb is that no publishing professional should see anything earlier than a third or fourth draft. Find new readers or give it to willing previous ones again. Hone it. Move from bigger picture to scene by scene to line edits. Keep editing until you find yourself reading pages and pages at a time without catching anything you want to change, until it reads like a novel you'd pull off your own bookshelf. The editing process could take up 8 steps on this list, it's that important. When you've finally got a polished draft in hand...

9) Now you're ready to begin the submission process. Like every other stage, submission should be a thoughtful one. DO NOT write a form query letter and send it to every agent or publisher in the world. Start by doing your research. Will you self publish? Jane Friedman offers an excellent guide to self-publishing if that's your preferred route. If you want to publish traditionally, would you rather work with an agent or submit to publishers directly? What are the pros and cons of each option? Either way, you'll need to find agents or publishers that best suit the genre and audience for your particular book. Writer's Digest The Writer's Market & Guide to Literary Agents are both super helpful. Curate the ideal list of recipients. Once you have that list in hand...

10) Write a strong query letter and synopsis of your book. No skimping here! Your query and your synopsis need to be perfect. Your query is the first thing (and if it doesn't grab them, the only thing) an agent or the intern in charge of the slush pile will read. Again, Writer's Digest's Chuck Sambuchino and The Writer's Market have excellent samples. Be sure to personalize all correspondence and follow agents' or publishers' submission guidelines to the letter. If they want you to start with an email query only, don't mail them a hardcopy of your entire book. Get it right. Agents and editors are profoundly busy people, so the adage applies: You only have one chance to make a good impression.Once you've nailed the query letter and the synopsis, it's time (finally!) to...

11) Press send. But only when everything is in perfect order, when you feel confident you've honoured the process and written the best book you can write. Then remember...

12) No matter what, try not to lose sight of #1.The celebration. The acknowledgement of your feat. Keep your writerly chin up, even if the rejections come in droves, even if the waiting seems unnecessarily long, even if news from the book world seems discouraging. As Edward Albee said, writing is an act of optimism. Writing is art and sacrifice. Just by doing it you're acknowledging an important part of yourself and you're putting something good into the world. Try to remember that and keep your pen to the page, your fingers to the keyboard no matter what.

Good luck! 

@amyfstuart

#NaNoWriMo

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It's November 1st. There are too many candy wrappers strewn at my feet, my children are splayed around the house in varying degrees of sugar coma, and the clocks have gone back to standard time, meaning up here in Toronto the sun will go down shortly after lunch. It's also the day my Twitter feed fills up with 140-character musings on #NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It's a movement that compels writers, in the dark and cold of each November, to attempt to write a novel in 30 days. It has a website and lots of joiners, and also lots of detractors who say there is something blasphemous about trying to hurry an inherently slow creative process, that trying to write 2000-3000K words a day is like throwing cups of paint at a canvas and hoping it bleeds together to look something like art. They have a point.

But today, I respectfully disagree with those detractors. Today, I've joined #NaNoWriMo.

My goal is a little different than the standard write a book in a month. I am writing the second novel in a series and I'm lucky to have a contract to do so. The first book (Still Mine! ORDER HERE!) comes out in April, and my goal all along has been to have the second book drafted and the revision process fully underway by the time Still Mine is in readers' hands. But transitioning back to the first draft writing has been harder than I thought it would be. I thought it would be same old, same old. But alas, it turns out you're not good at the second book just because you were eventually good at the first. I'm not sure there's ever such thing as mastery in writing. The muscles I built writing Still Mine will no doubt help me this time, but I'm not playing the same sport. The learning is new. I'm a beginner again. That's slowed me down more than I thought it would.

My goal for #NaNoWriMo is to force my brain out of the doubts and questions and into full-on writing mode, to run with the writing I already have. I'm not aiming for a full first draft, but I am aiming to write prolifically, to meet ambitious daily goals. I'm aiming to be part of a wider community of writers trying to do the same. I'm aiming to stop eating candy.

Keep warm, writers. I'll see you December 1st, pages in hand.

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Sarah Faber's Wonderful Book News

Writers tend to roam in packs and for years (decades, really, for we aren't so young anymore, are we?) I've run alongside my dearest friend Sarah Faber. She's always had a love for writing and a willingness to learn and grow and hone her craft; she's taught me so much about what true commitment to writing looks like. So I'm insanely thrilled that her beautiful, haunting novel LIGHTNING TO THE CHILDREN has been picked up by M&S in Canada and Little,Brown in the US. It's not surprising, but it's fabulous news nonetheless. Just wait until you read this book. Sarah will leave you in awe with the simplest turns of phrase. The story is gorgeous and her writing stuns. She is a monumental talent. I've known that for years and now the world will know it too!

Read all about her deal(s) HERE.

(On top of her beautiful, haunting writing, Sarah also makes beautiful, haunting dolls like the one below. Read all about them HERE).

First Draft Take 2: Starting Again

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Here's a post I wrote 2.5 years ago titled The Truth About First Drafts. I'll sum it up for you: First drafts usually stink. As Hemingway said, The first draft of anything is s**t. First drafts are a quagmire of half-formed themes, of thin plot lines & dropped threads, of characters who started out named Mark somehow ended up named Mike. First drafts are the kitchen when you're halfway through preparing that massive and complex meal: A complete mess. It's been a long time... years... since I've stared a first draft in the face. A month ago, I handed in a final draft of a novel. That sweet, spell-checked, edited, organized beast of a final draft that will never be perfect but it's pretty good to me. I birthed it and raised it and loved it and sent it out into the world.

Time to let it go. Time to start again.

I began my first novel by writing 50 pages at the Muskoka Novel Marathon. I was working from a one-page outline that dropped off at the end of the first act. I had a premise but not a plan. With the second novel, I'm trying a different approach by creating a thorough outline, the writer's equivalent of using an elaborate recipe. The best cooks may not need one; maybe they can add and remove and dabble and correct and invent as they go. But I'm pretty sure writing the first book without a strong outline made the process more complex and lengthy than it needed to be. Because I wrote a thriller with thriller elements like plot twists and red herrings and sneaky characters doing sneaky things, not having an intricate plan made for a lot of stops and starts later. In essence, if you're writing a whodunit, it's a good idea to know whodunit before you start.

I'm no fool: I know that an outline won't absolve me of extensive editing. I know that the first draft will still be a big mess. But this time I'm hoping for some method to the madness. I've often gone back to these two little essays by Andrew Pyper and Sheila Heti, each taking a side on whether to outline or not. Both make excellent points. Last time I was with Heti, and this time I'm with Pyper. I'll let you know whose side I'm officially on when I finish the second book.

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On a practical note, there are some tools of the trade that writers can use for outlining. My most beloved writing software Scrivener has features that support the planning stage. I've also tried The SnowFlake Method, a program designed specifically to help writers build a plan before they begin writing. Here's the idea: Think of a snowflake. You start in the centre with a premise, and you slowly build the complexity from there. The software is well-designed and easy to use, leaving lots of room in my brain for pesky creative things like inventing characters and putting them in dicey situations.

This time I'm not as afraid of the first draft. I'm ready, outline in hand. I'm prepared to get messy. Here I go.

STILL MINE

Writers might tell you about the weeks right before a book goes to copyedit and the scramble it takes to get the final edits done. I am in that phase right now. The book flies out of my hands in about two weeks. So I'm writing, editing, tidying, checking, fiddling, hoping. In the meantime, things are starting to happen to this book outside of my brain/computer.

It has a title. Still Mine.

It has a publication date: April 5, 2016. 

It has a pre-order page at Chapters.

The next year will be a thrilling time, preparing for the publication of this book, seeing cover art and galleys and ARCs, working with the sales and publicity teams, and finishing the first draft of the second novel in the series. I can't wait!

For now, back to work.

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The Muskoka Novel Marathon

Writers are often asked how they started a project or where they found their inspiration. It's usually a murky question, but in the case of my novel (still untitled!) the where question is easy. I started my book at the 2010 Muskoka Novel Marathon. The MNM takes place over a weekend every July at a gorgeous and inspiring lakeside setting in Huntsville, Ontario. Writers gather over a weekend and spill out as many words as they can on a new project. There's the spur of competition, because participants can submit their manuscripts at the marathon's end and the winners receive a consult from an agent or a publisher. There's a sense of purpose, because all the funds raised (usually well over $20000) go to literacy initiatives in the Muskoka region. 

But mostly, there's a deep sense of community, a room full of writers experiencing the waves of thrill and angst together. Some writers work through the night and others come and go. Some are working on third or fourth or fifth novels, others are first timers. By the end of the weekend, it feels familial. There's camaraderie, free food, good coffee and a great view. It makes for an excellent place to write; in 2010 I managed 50 pages in a weekend, and I was a slow poke compared to some of my fellow scribes.

I've done a few marathons over the years but I haven't been able to return for a while because of births or travel or other obligations. But I still feel very much a part of the community. When my book deal was announced, my friends at the MNM took the news and ran with it, writing a press release that resulted in a lot of attention (see here and here, for example), shouting it from the internet rooftops. I'm humbled by the support and championing they continue to give me as I work away at the project I started while there.

Every writer, emerging or otherwise, needs a community. If you are in search of one, I urge you to have a look at the Muskoka Novel Marathon. It will be held July 10-13th this year. Registration is March 10th and it fills super quickly (we're talking minutes). The best way to get more information is to follow them on Twitter or join the Facebook group.

How to Stop Worrying & Keep Writing

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There's a picture of me as a little kid that tells it all. I'm slumped in a church pew, my eyebrows bent in a look of unbridled worry. My childhood is full of scenes where I'm ruminating and my mother steps in to tell me to stop worrying about it. But what if this? I would ask her. What if that? When I was old enough to read it, she dug out her worn copy of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie and gifted it to me. Never mind the strange 1940s writing style or the religious undertone, I could swear the old man with the horn-rimmed glasses on the jacket cover had written that book just for me.

I worry less these days, even if there's more to worry about. I have offspring now, a job that immerses me in the lives of wily and struggling teenagers, and lots of writing to do. But in my daily life I keep it (mostly) in check, in part because I keep that worn copy of Carnegie's book on my desk as a steady reminder, in part because I married a guy who is always philosophical and easygoing, always gazing over to the bright side and nudging me to do the same. In very large part because I might be better at recognizing that in the grand scheme of the world these days, my troubles are piddling.

Or maybe I haven't been cured of it, but now I just dump it into my writing. Last year, a good friend read a draft of my novel then joked that I wasn't so sunny after all, that she understood where I funnelled all my darkness. The book is about a missing woman, about abuse and addiction and loss - no hilarity ensues anywhere within it. I write about dark things, and I worry as I do it. I frown and bite my nails as I write, regressed to that kid in the photograph with the furrowed brow. I worry this is not the right word or that sentence is too long or I'm not quite telling that bit like I want it to be told. Sometimes, I worry at once about every book I'll ever hope to write, and my heart rate will actually pick up at the magnitude of all the pages yet unwritten. But mostly, I worry about my characters and what will happen to them. This one confounds me. It's stupid, right? Worrying about the characters in your own novel is sort of like worrying about how your food will get chewed once you put it in your mouth. You have full authority over it! Just chew!

Writers talk all the time about flaky stuff like our characters existing outside of us, how we are capable of loving them and hating them and worrying about them as though they walk the earth alongside us. It's like parenthood, but with way more control at the outset- you pick not just the name but the hair and eye colour, the tics and the inclinations. You chart their course as you please, conjure up their friends and family, decide where they'll live and what they will and won't eat. You have all the control, indeed, yes, at first you do, but you know that soon the characters will become someone not-real-but-real, they will step away from you somehow, morph into beings with immutable strengths and foibles, and so every choice you make for them now will limit the choices you can make for them later. You can't just have your vegetarian eat meat or dye her hair pink; she is too steadfast for that. You know it's a bad idea to send her on that solo kayaking trip or to hand her that loaded gun, because you've already pegged her as lonely or prone to rage or both, and who knows if she'll stick to the plot/plan? So you worry about her. I do. I worry about her! I want her to be okay.

It's true that I probably worry more because I am in the midst of writing a series. Some of my characters will migrate from the first book to the second. As I work away at the final edits on this draft, my worries can be encapsulated in the notion of a leather briefcase. It goes like this: I can't decide halfway through book two that my main character carries a leather briefcase. She needs to have had it all along. She's not the kind of character who goes shopping for briefcases. She hates to shop. What if she really needs it? If she's going to need a briefcase, I have to put it in her hands now, in book one. Or at least mention that she's got it in her car, a gift from her mother. But wait, her mother's dead. That makes the briefcase sentimental, and we don't want to get into that. It's just a #*(&@)$ briefcase.

It took only one or two meetings with my editor Martha before she caught on. Sometimes, as we're hashing out a character or a plot point, I'll hear echoes of my mother in her response. Don't worry about that! What's the point in worrying about that now? Stop it! I've thought of lending her Carnegie's book just so she can gift it back to me. Just like my mom, she's firm but kind in her delivery. Do I doubt my ability to write these characters? No. This story? No. Then why worry? Right. But what if she needs that briefcase? Then you'll find a way to get it to her. Yes. I will.

(Really, there's no reason she'd ever need a briefcase.)

A fellow writer pointed out to me recently that, especially in the face of good things, like, say, the publication of one's book, you should only work hard. Worry is indulgence. Toil away at the writing with your head down and be grateful for the opportunity to do it. When the what if bubbles up, crush it with time and effort and a lot of ruthless editing. The fact that my novel will be out in the world someday soon is an excellent thing, the thing of dreams. The characters will be fine if I take them seriously and tend to them. They will survive whatever I throw at them. And when it comes down to it, if I really need one, briefcases are easy enough to come by. Stop worrying and start writing, as Dale Carnegie (or my mom, or my editor) would say. Start writing and keep writing once you've begun.

A Publishing Deal

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This week the two-book deal I signed with Simon & Schuster Canada was announced on Publishers' Marketplace and Quill & Quire. There must be a word to describe this exact feeling, the mix of joy and relief and fear and wonder and gratitude and validation. Maybe the word is thrilled. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Simon & Schuster Canada’s 2015 roster. I am thrilled that editor extraordinaire Martha Sharpe is working on the manuscript with me to get it stage ready. I am thrilled that I’m supposed to write a second book to go with the first. Scary – in a good way. The thought of a cover with my name on it, of my novel on a shelf in a bookstore… thrilling.

There’s also the humbling act of counting out everyone who’s played a part. Ian... in so many more ways than I can count, but also my parents and sisters, my three boys, my whole family, my amazing agent Chris Bucci, my sage Kendall Anderson, my first reader/thesis champion Lisa Moore, my earliest and gentlest readers, my friends and neighbours, my retreat partner Mariska Gatha, the women in my book club, my UBC cohort, my teaching colleagues, my students. A hundred more names to add to these.

In the first week after the offer came, when I was still too stunned to process it, it happened more than once that someone else's joy in the news reminded me that this was what I’ve wanted, this is why I’ve worked so hard for so long. People brought me champagne and insisted I stop for a minute to raise a glass. Forget about the logistics - how will it all get done? – and savour it.

And in my short time on the inside, I’ve been caught up in the swell of fiercely devoted and intelligent people who make up the book industry, who love books and work tirelessly to put them in our hands. It’s encouraging no matter what the realities of publishing might be these days.

I can’t wait for what the next year brings.

An act of optimism

Writers aren't renowned as a particularly optimistic bunch. It can be a lonely toil and the rewards are never guaranteed. I've recently started another big project (I won't use the n*vel word until I hit 20K words) connected to the last big project, and when I wake up early or wander out late into the icy dark to write, I need that sense that I'm doing it for good reason. Even with all the ominous news of decreasing readership and closing bookstores and such, I keep on believing that writing is worth my time and sacrifice. I'm hopeful because there is still so much good writing coming out into the world, so many books each year that I buy and read and love. I engage in great discussions on the topic all the time, either at my book club or on Twitter or in my classroom or anywhere else. Also, I'm quite certain my students are reading more now than they ever have; I can see them turning away from their screens and back to old-school books, perhaps a renaissance before the death of the written word was truly upon us.

So, I'm optimistic.

Years ago my hubby gifted me a journal and I think the inscription - care of Edward Albee - says it best.

A pile of drafts = a novel.

I wandered around my house today and collected each of the drafts I printed along the way in the quest to finish my novel. These drafts are dated:

February 29, 2012

October 3, 2012

June 9, 2013

September 19, 2013

 

This (really high) pile of words acts as a time capsule for the past few years of my life. In July 2010, I sat down for the first time at the Muskoka Novel Marathon and wrote 50 pages of some version of this book. Two months later, I was surprised to learn that those pages had won first prize in the fiction category. So, I kept going. It took me a year and a half to finish the first draft, with a baby born in between. By the time I was done that draft, my littlest son was starting to crawl and my oldest was halfway through his first year at school. By the second, I'd signed with a wonderful agent who believed in the project and encouraged me to keep working. By the third, I was back to teaching full-time. By the last one, my middle boy was in school too and most people in my life recognized that writing was something I did.

About halfway along, I wrote this post about the whole process and my hopes for this book. I never counted the hours as I was writing, but I know there were a lot of them - time alone, time away from my family, time not doing other things. A lot was poured into it. My husband earned thirty-six imaginary gold medals for Best Husband of a Writer, one for each month, and all the days within it, that he shooed me away to write.

I know there are more drafts to come, but for now the novel has gone from being written to being read, if only by a select few. I know finishing a novel shouldn’t be the end goal in itself, but right now it feels pretty good.

A Collection of Life Lists, Teenager Style

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One of the final assignments in the Grade 12 English class I teach is called You. It consists of two tasks: the first is to write a letter to a future version of yourself, and the second to curate a list of 50 things you want to do in life. The attention the kids pay to their lists never ceases to amaze. I teach at an alternative high school, and our students face a mishmash of hardships - poverty, family issues, legal troubles, addiction, mental health struggles, young parenthood, or maybe just that vague inability to fit in, to participate in a system made of rules that seem haphazard, or worse, rigged for failure.

And yet these kids - often with their smoke-stinky clothes or their yo missss version of a greeting, their sense of the world stacked against them – they still have much to say about how one should live life. Their lists are filled with goodness, with pure dreaming, with humour and empathy and the most wrenching efforts at self-acceptance. They are a heartbreaking, humbling joy to read.

With my students’ kind permission, I’ve taken some goals from each of the lists I received this year to share.

Here they are, verbatim:

Sleep out in nature at least once. Real nature, not a park

Learn more about homeopathy

Quit drinking Order (then of course eat) lobster at a ballin restaurant

Write a whole book of poetry

Throw a crazy ass house party but not at my own house

Reconnect with my father

Plant a tree in that huge crack in the cement in front of my building

Be the first person in my family to get a higher education

Sell one of my paintings to someone who will hang it in their house

Shower in a waterfall

Tell someone I love them, for real

Meet a famous person and tell them fame means nothing

Learn to pick friends who mean me no harm

Give an abandoned pet a loving home

Master a soufflé

Swim in every ocean

Cuddle with a panda bear

Donate money to the food bank

Learn yoga moves

Sleep more

Worry less

Find peace

Versions: All the People I Want to Be

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I’ve spent the past two months in some varying degree of ill-health, overcome by strep throat that came and went and came back, then went again and came back. For a week in early May, I spent days in bed in a fevered haze, unable to swallow and plagued by weird half-dreams - at one point I swear Don Draper came in to serve me iced lemonade. Also, my overheated brain began shooting out epiphanies. Life Stuff. Most of these epiphanies related to time, being busy, managing time, too much to do, not enough time, stressing about time, to-do lists. Blah blah blah. Reading over my previous blog posts, this seems to be the theme of my life. I see now that I wear the “busy mom” persona like a cross, knocking my way through each day making sure every single person knows just how much I have going on.

Screw it. As the fever broke and I returned to normal/diminished brain function, the first thing I did was consult the calendar. Step One: Cancel Everything. All plans, erased. For the foreseeable future, my days will be reduced to three things: Writing, Teaching, Family. My life is nothing but WTF.  (ha)

Step Two: Dial down the dreaming.  It turns out, I still have a million versions of my future mapped out in my brain. If you ask me what I want to be in twenty years, around the time I’m pushing sixty, I’ve still got as many answers as my four year old does. He wants to murder skeletons and zombies, and he wants to be an astronaut and a dancer, and of course he wants to drive a garbage truck. He’s even got me intrigued by that notion. As he’s oft pointed out in his little person way, you’d see some cool s**t if you drove a garbage truck.

I don't really want to drive a garbage truck. But when the Leafs made the playoffs, I was reminded that I really do want to be a sportscaster. I know a lot about sports, hockey in particular. I can talk no-touch icing and the politics of the crease, and I’ve got blond hair and a vaguely husky voice. I could totally hold my own sandwiched between Ron McLean and Glenn Healy at that glass desk. I could do that job.  I always wanted to do that job. What happened to that dream?

The trouble is, that wasn't the only one. In my twenties I also considered medical school. Sometimes that one still bubbles up too. The fantasy involves me going to medical school now (which is easy and just whizzes by), becoming a doctor then getting a part-time job in the ER. I work twelve hours or less a week in a harried but heroic scene with a George Clooney doppelganger by my side, taking pulses and shouting orders to the nurse. There’s not a lot of blood and everyone lives. That would be a great life, right? It's not entirely impossible.

Then there's politics. I've always thought about that. I’m cool with being in front of people and I speak broken Francais. In Grade 12 I bet someone $100 I’d one day be Prime Minister. These days, in the spirit of easy-act-to-follow, I imagine myself running for mayor. How hard can it be to build a utopia? If I was mayor, we’d have subways all the way to Barrie and every streetcar would have lemonade stands and a jazz quartet at the back. Drivers would reach out their car windows to high five cyclists and vegans and abattoir employees would band together to turn parking lots into playgrounds and plant trees up and down the length of every major highway.

If was I Mayor, though, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of free time to take up curling, which diminishes my odds of making the 2018 or 2022 Winter Olympics. I always figured I’d make the Olympics someday. Ideally I'd win a medal too, but at this point I figure just getting there would be pretty cool. Given my age and level of fitness, curling’s probably my only hope.

Then I see what all my friends are doing (Facebook is awesome/horrible for that), and I want to follow them to greatness. I want to be a therapist, or make dresses, or run 10K really really fast, or move my family to another country, work abroad, bake homemade bread, become a professional photographer, or an actor, or open a restaurant. I want to renovate houses and then get my own TV show as the quirky woman contractor who renovates houses. I want to be a world-class rapper like Macklemore, but still have time for curling.

Likely this is the effect of approaching forty, the early throes of midlife. Life now necessitates that I shed some versions of myself, not in a death approaches way, but because I want to be good at what I'm actually doing. I love teaching and I love writing. I love having some time on my hands. Ya, so I'm probably never going to be a doctor, or a sportscaster, or an Olympic curler. Oh well. Let those be someone else’s glory. I'll live vicariously through them. Again, Facebook is good/bad for that.

(I could totally still be mayor though.)

A Letter to My Former Self: The Truth About First Drafts

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Last year, on February 29th, I finished the first draft of my novel. If I could send a note back in time, a congratulatory letter to my first-draft-finishing self, here's what it would say...
Dear Amy,

Well done! You have finished the first draft of your novel. I know, right? Amazing. You feel quite good about yourself. I've been there. I'm right there with you. You feel it's quite fitting that this should happen on a Leap Day, don't you? Because a completed first draft is a rare enough thing. You are imagining the sheer and unprecedented scope of the publishing contract headed your way. You're narrating a version of the phone call to come from Steven Spielberg who simply *must* buy the film rights to this novel and any future ones you write.

Fun, isn't it? It's a fun time.

I really do want you to be happy. Of course I mean to congratulate you. But I am also the Ghost of Writerly Future hoping to shed some light on what's to come. Calibrate expectations, if you will. A reality check. Let's call it: The Truth About First Drafts.

For you, the journey begins tomorrow. Tomorrow, you will have the draft printed and bound and you will pick it up at the printing place and it will sit heavy and book-like in your hands. This will feel glorious. A Life Moment. You will pass it to your husband at the dinner table and he will weigh it on open palms, and he will do that slow nod thing he does when he's absorbing something momentous.

And after the kids are in bed, you will cozy up on the couch with your printed first draft and glass of Pinot Grigio, and you will open it to a random page and read a sentence out loud. Not bad, you'll think. Then you'll flip to another page and read another sentence, but this time it will make you shudder. You might even groan. Eleven more flips and eleven more shudder/groans later, you'll snap the book closed and chug the Pinot. A deep dread will try to well up inside you, but you'll jam it back down. You'll decide to put the book in a drawer for a while... you know, to give yourself some time to bask.

Over the next few weeks, your sense of accomplishment will be slowly replaced by a gnawing sense of impending doom. People will hear of your feat - you wrote a novel? - and congratulate you profusely. When can I read it? they'll ask. Soon! You'll say, but really you'll be thinking never, you'll NEVER read it, as those horrible sentences you spied in that first flip through churn in your gut like bile. You'll resist the frequent urge to pull it from the drawer and burn it ceremoniously in a roaring bonfire of some sort.

Eventually, you'll feel ready to have a go at it again. The experience of starting a second draft will be on par with looking at your naked body in the mirror right after giving birth; that bit of pride at what you've done overpowered by the dawning horror of all the work yet to come. You'll find yourself craving wine and chocolate then looking over at the clock to see it's only 9:38am. This will not be a good time. The early days of the second draft are a dark time. Know that now. Accept it.

The second draft will take three months. Upon completion, it will be incrementally better than the first. The third draft will take two months. The mathematics, at this point, will look promising. Each draft gets faster! Easier! Then you'll give that third draft to a professional, who will outline between 165-286 changes you need to make. And so, the fourth draft will take five months. Two spent sitting at your computer, often just staring, sometimes playing online Scrabble against other writers working on their fourth drafts, sometimes crafting witty emails to famous people you'll never meet. The last three months of those five, you'll actually write.

Today is February 28th. Today, I am almost done the fourth draft. I can't say happy anniversary to you, because there is no February 29th this year. Also, I see now that a first draft, while certainly an accomplishment, amounts to half the work at best. I'm sure you feel differently. Of course you do. You still want me to congratulate you. It's still February 29th for you, that magical day, the first draft of your first novel finally written. And since you haven't read it over yet, you're still blissfully unaware that it's a complete pile of shit.

Please don't be discouraged. By the end of the fourth draft, you will feel the book is pretty good. You'll actually consider showing it to others. You'll have shed all illusions about what it takes to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, which is a good thing. You'll no longer be picturing Steven Spielberg showing up at your door with a bouquet of daisies and a cheque for $4.5 million. But you will feel like you persevered.

Yours,

Amy

What Does 5am Look Like?

In three weeks, I return to full-time teaching after two years off to have a baby and finish my MFA. So I find myself lately staring at the calendar and trying to plot out when, in any given week that includes 40+ hours of work and all the other life stuff like kids + meals + marriage + friends + exercise + episodes of Girls and Homeland, I’m going to sit down and write.

In order to be a productive writer and a happy human, I need to spend between 10-15 hours a week writing or pretending to write. The calendar doesn’t lie… my days are going to be really full once I go back to work, and the only open slot is the morning. And by morning, I mean before anything else happens. Before my kids wake up. And my kids wake up at seven. The part of the morning most of us prefer to call night.

I have a theory that the secret to success in pretty much anything is the willingness to wake up early. Successful people often make use of those dark and cold hours that unfold while sane people sleep. If you read about the lives of Olympic athletes and CEOs and Barack Obama and UN Envoys and even many a successful writer, very few of them describe their routine as rolling out of bed at 8:08am and arriving to work 42 minutes later with morning breath and their faces still lined with pillow creases. They talk about 4am, 5am, 6am. They talk about “relishing the quiet” and “all they accomplish” in those early first hours. They all get up early and love it. By the time I’m reaching for the Shreddies, they’ve already put in four hours of toil. A**holes.

(I also have a theory that waking up at 5am will turn me into a troll. A mean, withered, exhausted, ugly-on-the-inside-and-on-the-outside troll.)

Any which way, starting in February, I’ll be waking up early two or three days a week to write. I hope it will keep me in the game, keep my pen to the page as I devote the rest of my workday to teaching, a job I love and am not ready to give up any time soon. This is the only way to do both.

Either it works and I’m able to keep up with 10-15 hours a week of writing on top of everything else, or I do become a troll. Or both. We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.

Didn't we almost have it all...

Sometimes I waste time in a highly symbolic way. Today, for example, I searched online for quotes on motivation, figuring if I put some into a Word document in a really cool font, printed it out and pinned it up in front of me as I tried to get things done, I’d magically stop procrastinating. It didn't work. I’m aware lately that I give off an air of competence. I appear to be a person who gets shit done. I certainly don’t feel like that person. With the MFA complete, I get the same question a lot. How did you do it?

The answer(s)?

  1. I don’t know.
  2. With a lot of help.
  3. I'm a deadline kind of person.
  4. It was hard.

The truth is, I’m a bad procrastinator. I get easily overwhelmed. I hate pressure, but I seem to need it in order to finish a task. Really, I’m not quite sure how anything gets done.

The other truth: I find people who have it all together all the time kind of boring. The sort of people who have their Christmas presents wrapped before December is even upon us (I haven’t even started shopping…), who finish essays then stick them in drawers to await their actual due date. How is it even possible to function when you don’t have the fire of panic nipping at your ass?

I don’t want to be hard on myself... I know I’ve accomplished a good amount in my life. I have three healthy kids and I did finish that damn MFA. I occasionally exercise and we eat decently enough in my house. But a lot of that has to do with the people around me. My husband is an insanely patient and hardworking person. My extended family is helpful and supportive. I alone am never on top of things. Ever. That’s never, ever happened. Our house is almost always a mess. I’ve never, ever experienced all the laundry folded and put away at once. The cup holder in my car is disgusting. But, I do my taxes and I stay in touch with friends and my husband and I get out for the odd night. I write. I’m writing. I’m trying. It’s not that bad.

Last year, after my third son was born, we went through a period where things were truly overwhelming. We had three small children, my husband worked full-time and I still had to write because my thesis due date was looming. So how did I do it? Like this: I showed up to my cousin’s wedding with one son in track pants covered in holes and grass stains. My husband sent our oldest to a birthday party with an already-opened Pez dispenser as the gift. Our baby got bathed, but usually by the babysitter who’d notice on Monday that he was wearing the same onesie she’d put him in on Friday. We were forced to let some (many) things go so other things could stay. It felt like we were treading water in a choppy lake. It also felt somehow important not to hide that from people, to polish things up and make it look easy when it wasn't. Facebook already does that for us. Look how awesome my life is! So, I tried to be honest. When asked how are you? I answered truthfully: I’m barely hanging on. How do I do it all? I don’t.

Things are better now, or maybe we’re just used to the chaos. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I pay a price for all the things I want. I want to be a writer, so I’ll never have enough time to exercise. I want to take my kids swimming, so my car will always be a mess. I hire babysitters and I rely heavily on my husband, my parents, my sisters and my friends. I. Can’t. Do. It. All.

I can’t do it all, at all, ever. But I can do some of it, sometimes. That will have to do.